THE MOVEMENT UNITES

The announcement first appeared in the January, 1832 number of the Christian Messenger. It read:

We are happy to announce to our brethren and to the world, the union of Christians in fact in our country. A few months ago the Reforming Baptists, (known invidiously by the name of Campbellites,) and the Christians in Georgetown and the neighborhood, agreed to meet and worship together. We soon found that we were indeed in the same spirit, on the same foundation, the New Testament, and wore the same name, Christian. We saw no reason why we should not be the same family.

While the Kentucky Christians and the Reformers called for unity, the frontier society had no practical example of it until the union at Georgetown.

This page presents the movement's concept of unity and then trace how it worked out in the first American union of two separate movements.

I. The restoration concept of unity

Many think the Restoration Movement seeks the union of denominations or the merging of local congregations. Others think unity simply requires a recognition of anyone professing Jesus as Lord.

Restoration fathers held an idea of Christian unity which differs sharply from either of those two views. They believed sincere followers of Jesus existed in all of the day's denominations and sects. They understood, too, that Jesus desired his disciples be united (John 17:21). They also believed that such unity could not be invisible. Basic to their whole idea was the fact that for which Christ prayed should result in the evangelization of the world. Any real unity needed to find its basis in God's Word. This unity could be nothing else than the coming together of those honestly seeking God's will who determine to make the Bible their sole guide in matters of faith and practice.

The Restoration Movement extended this call for unity to individuals. They called to them to "come out from among them and be separate...." None of the Restoration fathers displayed an interest in simply uniting congregations or denominations. D.S. Burnet described what it would take:

I. An Uniform DEFINITION of the technical terms of Christianity....

II. An Uniform ARRANGEMENT of the terms and items of Christianity....

III. THE DESTRUCTION OF PARTY NAMES AND PARTY ORGANIZATIONS....

IV. That we have ONE BODY, having one Lord, one faith, one hope and one spirit, we must have ONE (and but one) baptism. Eph. IV. 4,5, 6.

Campbell later (1837) added his comments in the Millennial Harbinger:

1. The restoration of a pure speech, or the calling of Bible things by Bible names....

2. The Bible must be proposed as a book of facts, not of doctrines, nor opinions; it must be understood and regarded upon the principles of cause and effect, or that action is to produce corresponding action...

3. The Bible alone, instead of any human creed, as the only rational and solid foundation of Christian union and communion....

4. The reading and expounding of the sacred scriptures [sic] in public assemblies instead of text preaching, sermonizing, and philosophizing....

5. The right of private opinion in all matters not revealed in contradistinction from the common faith, without the forfeiture of Christian character or Christian privilege....

Again, Alexander Campbell wrote, "By Christian UNITY, we understand a spiritual oneness with Christ."

II. The union of Christians and Reformers

Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone first met in Georgetown, Kentucky. You'll find differing opinions about their subsequent relationship. McAllister and Tucker, Disciples historians, remark that "the two men, quite different in many ways, never became close personal friends." M.M. Davis, a turn of the century historian, said, "Theirs was a case of esteem and love on first sight, and this feeling continued to the end of life." Davis quotes Stone as saying:

I will not say there are no faults in Bro. Campbell, but there are fewer, perhaps, in him than any man I know on earth; and over these few my love would throw a veil, and hide them forever from view. I am constrained, and willingly constrained, to acknowledge him the greatest promoter of this Reformation of any man living.

Looking at their stormy correspondence carried on in the pages of the Millennial Harbinger and the Christian Messenger, I cannot but agree with McAllister and Tucker. That the two men respected each other there is no doubt. You can respect another in spite of sharp differences. It goes too far, however, to call them "friends." The relation he had with his opponent in the Owen debate shows that Campbell could be cordial, even friendly with his opponents in debate. Nonetheless, the invective Campbell used in his Harbinger articles and Stone's responses show a harshness that couldn't be overcome. Had it not been for others, the union of the two groups might never have happened.

Much separated the Christians and the Reformers. Still, there were similarities. Observers noticed these similarities. Stone wrote:

The question is going the round of society, and is often posed to us, Why are not you and the Reformed Baptists one people? or, Why are you not united? We have uniformly answered: In spirit we are united, and that no reason existed on our side to prevent the union in form.

Campbell replied by asking Stone what he meant by "united in form." Campbell went on to relate the differences existing between the two movements.

What were the similarities? Both Reformers and Christians held to the all-sufficiency of Scripture and the rejection of human creeds. Both movements looked to the Bible as their final authority. Both movements emphasized unity and were agreed on the nature of faith. The Reformers emphasized baptism more strongly than the Christians, but both believed it to be immersion for remission of sins. They also agreed on congregational autonomy which they held out as the New Testament norm.

What were the differences? Numerous differences separated the two groups and they loomed large in any discussion of union. Alexander Campbell, in particular, found it difficult to overcome some of these differences. Doctrinal issues separated the two movements and their leaders. Campbell held strongly to trinitarian theology. Campbell refused to use the term Trinity because he could not find it in Scripture. Nonetheless, he believed strongly in the equality of all three persons in the Godhead. Barton W. Stone did not share that conviction. While Stone took no adamant position, he tended to place Jesus in a subordinate position to God. This fact alone caused Campbell to question Stone's orthodoxy. He suspected that he might well be Socinian or Unitarian and this one point formed a strong argument against union. Campbell also took a much stronger view of the Atonement. Stone accepted the "Moral Influence Theory" which stated that Christ's death simply served to morally influence man to be reconciled to God. Campbell argued that the Atonement was the cause and reconciliation the effect of Christ's death. The two groups also differed over the name. Campbell preferred "Disciples" for individual Christians since we are learners at Jesus's feet. Stone preferred the name "Christian" for all the reasons so ably outlined in "Sacred Import." The two movements also used different evangelistic methods. Stone tended towards revivalism with its emotional appeals while Campbell opted for a more reasoned and calm approach. McAllister and Tucker mention just a couple of other items:

1. Christians emphasized unity while Disciples emphasized restoration.

2. Disciples equated baptism with immersion and required immersion for membership while Christians were more tolerant.

3. The Disciples observed a weekly communion while the Christians communed less often.

4. The Christians had a higher conception of the office of the ministry and were less anti-clerical than the Disciples.

You can immediately see there were substantial differences. Published interchanges between the two leaders reached such a pitch that reconciliation seemed almost impossible. Probably the movements would not have united were it not for the persistence of other Restoration Movement leaders.

When the Reformers experienced difficulty with the Baptists, the door for union with the Christians began to open. When the Baptists and Reformers split, new congregations formed in communities where Christian congregations already existed. In fact, the Baptists and the Christians seemed to be particularly strong in the same areas -- Kentucky and Ohio. Those in outlying areas soon saw the two groups' similarities. In 1828, members of the Christian Church in Cooper's Run, Kentucky, opened their pulpit and communion table to all believers. By September 19, 1828, the Christians expressed their willingness to "mingle" with the Disciples during a conference at Antioch, Kentucky. The first formal union occurred at Millersburg, Kentucky, not far from Cane Ridge on April 24, 1831.

Campbell and Stone had nothing to do with the Millersburg union. Throughout 1831 the two leaders engaged in heated correspondence over the concepts of union. At the same time some of that degenerated into claims of priority.

Stone...[remarked that] in essence the Reformed Baptists -- as he called them -- had accepted the doctrine taught by the Christians for a number of years. Stone's candor upset Campbell. Other antisectarian reformers were pioneers clearing forests and burning brush, Campbell replied, but only he and his followers had restored the ancient gospel. Stone was unwilling to concede this point. In his next letter he noted Campbell's "plain denial" of the Christians' claim to priority and then observed: "I am aware of the deceptibility of the human mind, and of its strong propensity to make for ourselves a great name." Campbell was infuriated.

Such a petty problem to take up the pages of their two influential publications.

John T. Johnson and the colorful Raccoon John Smith promoted the union to its conclusion. Stone met John T. Johnson, a member of the Kentucky legislature turned preacher, in Kentucky. Stone invited Johnson, a Reformer, to co-edit Stone's paper following the union. Once these two men struck up their friendship, their two congregations in Georgetown agreed to worship together. They announced meetings to be held in Georgetown on December 23-26 specifically to discuss union. They also announced similar meetings in Lexington, Kentucky, for the same period on through January 2, 1832. They held the larger meetings at Lexington's Hill Street Church. Stone and Smith served as spokesmen. Raccoon John Smith arose first:

While for the sake of peace and Christian union, I have long since waived the public maintenance of any speculation I may hold, yet not one Gospel fact, commandment, or promise, will I surrender for the world!

Let us, then, my brethren, be no longer Campbellites or Stoneites, New Lights or Old Lights, or any other kind of lights, but let us all come to the Bible alone, as the only book in the world that can give us all the Light we need.

Stone, deeply moved, replied, "I have not one objection to the ground laid by him as the true scriptural [sic] basis of union among the people of God; and I am willing to give him, now and here, my hand."

Stone published the union's announcement in his paper along with a spirited defense. Campbell, who was hardly enthusiastic, expressed guarded hope for the venture. Stone was elated! Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright wrote:

B.W. Stone stuck to his New Lightism...till he grew old and feeble, and the mighty Alexander Campbell, the great, arose and poured such floods of regenerative water about the old man's cranium, that he formed a union with this giant errorist.

The united churches sent Raccoon John Smith and John Rogers as evangelists promoting the uniting of other Christian and Reformer churches. No organization existed to approve such union so congregations continued uniting on local levels for years. John Longley (Christian) and John P. Thompson (Reformer) led unity efforts in Indiana which included the Blue River Baptists, Dunkards, Newlights, as well as the Silver Creek Association.

Unity did not come without difficulty. Problems arose but most were trivial. In Georgetown, a "blow up" occurred over the nature of the ministry in 1832. Christians believed an ordained minister needed to be present to observe communion. Reformers held that an elder could provide communion. This difference of opinion caused some difficulty and the Reformers withdrew to their old building for a time to continue regular communion services. In time, they worked out the issue.

Things went less smoothly in New England. The leadership of the New England Christians strongly opposed union with the Campbellites. They felt Campbell was legalistic, particularly regarding his views on the necessity of immersion. Alexander Campbell opposed union with the New England Christians because he classified them as Unitarians. Stone often found himself attacked by both groups.

The union proved significant. When the union occurred there were approximately 10,000 Stoneites and some 12,000 Campbellites. Once the union was complete the movement exploded and numbered 190,000 within 30 years. More importantly, the union of Christians and Reformers demonstrated that even those with differing opinions could unite when they agreed on the essentials.

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